Nuclear Weapons Alert Status Debated

Wade Boese

At an annual United Nations meeting, a nonbinding resolution calling on nuclear-armed states to lessen the alert level of those weapons recently won the support of 124 countries despite British, French, and U.S. opposition. It also prompted further debate inside the United States about how quickly its nuclear weapons are primed for use.

New Zealand conceived of the recent measure and partnered with Chile, Nigeria, Sweden, and Switzerland to introduce the resolution Oct. 17 to the UN First Committee, which is the body where governments debate and vote on international arms control and disarmament proposals. That resolution calls for “further practical steps to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.”

Two nuclear-weapon possessors, India and Pakistan, joined the majority of countries approving the resolution Nov. 1 over the three no votes of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. China, which has nuclear weapons, and Israel, which is generally suspected of having such arms, abstained from the vote along with 32 other countries. Nuclear-armed Russia and North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test last year, did not vote.

Phil Goff, New Zealand’s disarmament and arms control minister, declared after the vote that it should serve as a “wake-up call” to those with nuclear arsenals. Goff, who doubles as defense minister, warned that, with nuclear weapons ready to fire in minutes, “little time exists for dialogue to avoid” a nuclear war “sparked by accident or technical malfunction as well as by a deliberate act.”

In explaining the U.S. vote, Ambassador Christina Rocca, permanent U.S. representative to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament, delivered a statement contesting the resolution’s premise that current U.S. weapons-alert status magnifies the risk of nuclear weapons use. Notwithstanding a well-publicized August incident of the unauthorized transportation of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles by the Air Force (see ACT, November 2007 ), Rocca noted that for ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) there are “multiple, rigorous procedural and technical safeguards to guard against accidental and unauthorized launch.” She also declared that the United States “does not rely on launch-on-warning” although the resolution did not specifically assert that to be the case.

The United States foreshadowed its no vote the previous month after previewing a draft version of the New Zealand resolution. Rocca delivered an Oct. 9 address criticizing “hair-trigger alert” as a description of the U.S. nuclear force posture. She asserted that U.S. nuclear forces “are not and have never been on ‘hair-trigger alert’” and are “postured to provide the president with maximum decision time and flexibility.” In the final draft, New Zealand substituted the phrase “high alert status.”

In a Nov. 6 paper responding to Rocca’s speech, Bruce Blair, a former U.S. Air Force ICBM launch control officer and current president of the independent World Security Institute, argued in effect that New Zealand was initially correct. He wrote that the “nuclear war machinery has a hair-trigger quality” that stems from U.S. and Soviet Cold War calculations that their nuclear forces had to be ready to fire so they could not be wiped out before possible use. Consequently, Blair argued, the forces were and remain configured to “launch on warning—firing friendly forces en masse before the anticipated arrival of incoming enemy missiles with flight times of 12 to 30 minutes.”

Blair further disputed the claim that procedures and safeguards exist to ensure that nuclear weapons are not employed in haste. He contended U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs can be fired in one to two minutes while SLBMs can be launched out of their tubes in 12 minutes. A dozen minutes or less, Blair calculated, is how much time the president would typically have to decide on using nuclear weapons if a suspected incoming missile attack was detected. All told, Blair concluded, “the U.S. posture is still geared for firing thousands of weapons within a few minutes of pressure-packed, checklist-driven deliberation and a few minutes of intense implementation in the field.”

Lieutenant Denver Applehans, a spokesperson for Strategic Command, which is in charge of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, stated in a Nov. 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today that it is incorrect to say that “thousands of weapons” are primed to fire on short notice. Instead, he explained that the only forces kept “on day-to-day alert” are 450 Minuteman III ICBMs and “a small number” of nuclear-armed submarines. In 1991, the United States removed all strategic bombers from alert.

As part of the current posture, Applehans noted that the “ICBM force could be launched prior to impact, but only if the president were to direct such an action.” He said maintaining the ICBMs to deliver a “rapid response” is “an important aspect of our deterrent because it complicates an opponent’s pre-emptive strike planning.” All told, he said the U.S. posture “has evolved since the end of the Cold War.”

In a Nov. 13 interview with Arms Control Today, retired General Eugene Habiger, a former head of Strategic Command, said that an accurate characterization of the current U.S. nuclear posture is that it is “a continuation of the Cold War alert status, which was not hair-trigger.” He contended “hair-trigger” conjures up the notion of a system set to go off with just a little pressure, while U.S. forces are subject to a “very deliberate process” before use.

Almost all nuclear arms possessors strictly cloak their postures in secrecy. The United Kingdom has been most open, declaring that, under normal circumstances, its nuclear weapons require “several days’ ‘notice to fire.’” Russia is perceived to keep its weapons on an alert status similar to that of the United States, while French, Indian, and Israeli policy is uncertain. China and Pakistan are generally thought to store nuclear warheads separately from delivery vehicles.

At a once-every-five-years review conference of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2000, the treaty’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) announced that their nuclear weapons were not targeted at any state. They also agreed in that conference’s final document to pursue “concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.”

Since that conference, there have been other high profile calls on nuclear-armed states to change their nuclear postures. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2004 high-level panel on security challenges called for “where appropriate, a progressive schedule for de-alerting,” and another panel of experts led by former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix urged the United States and Russia to “agree on reciprocal steps to take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.”

Most recently, two former U.S. secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, joined with former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to endorse “changing the Cold War posture of deployed nuclear weapons to increase warning time.” The quartet included this as one element of a broader agenda toward nuclear disarmament that they outlined Jan. 4 in The Wall Street Journal.

Prior to them, however, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush said on May 23, 2000, that the United States “should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status—another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.”

A full copy of Strategic Command’s e-mail response to Arms Control Today’s questions on the alert status of U.S. nuclear weapons is available at .